Friday, December 28, 2012

The rise of the personal space program

This article was originally posted on Google+.

Just over a year ago now, the first ever project I backed on Kickstarter was Kicksat. A project to put a swarm of small nano-satellites in orbit. The size of a couple of postage stamps each satellite has solar cells, a radio transceiver, and a micro-controller along with memory and sensors.

Today in the mail my souvenir satellite arrived, it's just 3.5 cm square. It's an engineering prototype, presumably one that failed verification, and it doesn't have it's solar cells attached, but otherwise its just like the ones that'll be flown into orbit.

An engineering sample of a flight ready Sprite nano-satellite.
At it's heart is a +Texas Instruments  CC430F5137. It's a whole system on a chip based around an MSP430 CPU, a 16-bit RISC ulta-low power micro-controller, along with an onboard RF transceiver operating in the sub-1GHz bands, a real-time clock and an integrated temperature sensor.

As well as the big solder pads at the top of the board for the solar cell there are a number of unpopulated pads on the board, including space for some through hole components, so there is certainly room for more sensors to be added on the board itself, and the MSP430 has the capacity to handle them.  

However the satellite is going to be entirely reliant on the solar cell for power, there is no battery back up on the board, and the satellite will only be able to operate on the Sun-ward side of its orbit. That means power is the limiting factor. The CC4305137 has good brown-out reset capability, probably one of the reasons it was chosen, however you have to wonder how much more can be crammed onto the board and still reliably operate. 

While it's might not seem much beyond a shrunken down Sputnik at that point, the Kicksat is ground breaking. In just fifty-five years we've advance from the point where it takes the might of one of the world's only super powers to put something like this into orbit, to the point where several hundred of them can be put into orbit by a graduate student with some enthusiastic backers.

Despite the pessimism I often express at the way the space programme is going, this is something that gives me a lot of hope that we aren't going the wrong way. That we aren't starting a march towards the abandonment of technology and a slow fall towards an age of declining possibilities and narrowing horizons.

Kicksat, the CubeSat designed to carry hundreds of these small Sprite nano-satellites aboard, is now on track for launch in the autumn of 2013 onboard the CRS-3/ELaNa-5 mission. This will be the third Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) flight to deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a +SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. KickSat, along with 5 other CubeSats, will be hitching a ride as a secondary payload thanks to +NASA's ELaNa  program.